Cricket: Kent ready to lay the ghosts

Stephen Brenkley says the title leaders can clear the last hurdle this week
Click to follow
Steve Marsh was making no predictions. He has spent 15 years in county cricket, most of them trying and failing to lay the ghosts of a glorious past. The Holy Grail which is the Championship, not to mention several other lesser Grails, have been too often snatched from Kent's grasp for their captain to indulge in optimistic speculation.

But his side are where it matters now, in front and with daylight showing at last. The great prize which has eluded them for 19 years is tantalisingly within touching distance once more. With two matches left and 48 points to play for they lead by 13.

"There's still so much to do," said Marsh in the immediate aftermath of the crucial, comprehensive victory against Gloucestershire on Friday. "We knew this would be a tough match, there are two tough matches to come. But we'll be doing what we have done all season, sticking to our game plan. In the past we've meandered a bit, tried too many different things maybe and that's how you come unstuck."

Those carefully balanced words may not fully reflect the positive, bright way Kent have played this summer but they indicate perfectly how much the Britannic title means to Marsh. It would seal (though not end) a career which began as Kent's splendid side of the Seventies was disintegrating and has been played in their long shadow.

Still, if Kent are favourites for the title they are not, outside the county, favourites in the primary meaning of the word. For reasons lost in the mists of time (or perhaps in that Seventies era when they conducted their on-field business with a single-mindedness not then altogether fashionable) they have managed to get a fair distance up the neutrals' pipe. This seems eminently unfair for a county which has bred cricketers as obviously beautiful as Woolley, Cowdrey and Knott and as singularly outstanding as Blythe, Wright and Underwood but there it is.

No county in the kingdom is as passionate as Kent about the game and their rightful place in it - "one-eyed," their refreshing New Zealand coach, John Wright, calls it. Yorkshire might be as fervent but are far more self-critical and less likely to forgive one of their own.

It is appropriate that the two should be meeting at Headingley this week in the penultimate round of matches. It may not quite decide the champions, though the mathematics of the table show that Kent could clinch it, but it will be a severe test of both sides' resilience, willpower and determination to stick to the game plan.

Marsh, who would surely deserve a chance at the England A team captaincy were it not for the pressing need to try to identify a young wicketkeeper with the right stuff, expects no quarter. "We don't know what the wicket is going to do but they're two good attacks. I think we have to be prepared for anything."

David Byas, Yorkshire's captain, is happy to be coming from behind, though would have been happier if water had not poured under the covers at Lancashire last week. Yorkshire revived their chances with a sturdy win over Worcestershire but the feeling persists that they may just lack sufficient self-belief when it counts - unless of course Paul Hutchison, their 19-year-old left- arm fast bowler, continues to unleash vicious inswing.

This has been a compelling Championship not least because of the involvement of gallant, glorious Gloucestershire, a team of anonymity and wonderful spirit. Sadly, they look to have faded again at the last as they have done so many times. Their captain, Mark Alleyne, who has moulded such marvellous team spirit, was not conceding the pennant at Canterbury but neither his eyes nor words carried conviction. "This hasn't taken the edge off the season," he said. "We just need Kent to make the sort of mistakes we have against them."

It looks to be between three now, Kent, Yorkshire and Glamorgan. The Welsh did themselves no favours against Surrey, refusing to chase a difficult target, but matches against Essex and Somerset do not represent a tough run-in. After going to Leeds, Kent must play rapidly rising Surrey without their influential leg-spinner Paul Strang. Min Patel, their left-arm spinner who has been out since the first game with a knee injury, may be in line for a dramatic return. Yorkshire's last game is at Derby. But it is Kent's title to lose now. This time they may not, which will prompt widespread rejoicing, if only in Kent.

Remaining fixtures

10 Sept: Durham v Somerset, Glam v Essex, Hants v Sussex, Middx v Notts, Northants v Leics, Surrey v Lancs, Warwicks v Gloucs, Worcs v Derby, Yorks v Kent.

18 Sept (inc Sunday): Derbys v Yorks, Essex v Middx, Gloucs v Lancs, Hants v Worcs, Kent v Surrey, Leics v Durham, Somerset v Glam, Sussex v Notts, Warwicks v Northants.

Championship table

P W L D Bat Bwl Tot

Kent (4) 15 7 4 4 39 52 220

Glamorgan (10) 15 6 2 7 42 49 208

Yorkshire (6) 15 6 2 7 36 49 202

Gloucs (13) 15 6 5 4 33 52 193

Warwicks (8) 15 6 2 7 26 45 188

Middlesex (9) 15 6 4 5 27 48 186

Surrey (3) 15 5 3 7 37 47 185

Worcs (7) 15 4 3 8 41 46 180

Essex (5) 15 5 5 5 37 47 179

Notts (17) 15 4 2 9 21 51 163

Leics (1) 15 3 1 11 32 46 159

Somerset (11) 15 2 2 11 35 56 156

Lancs (15) 15 4 6 5 29 46 154

Northants (16) 15 3 5 7 27 42 138

Hants (14) 15 2 4 9 38 37 134

Durham (18) 15 2 6 7 21 48 122

Derbyshire (2) 15 1 8 6 27 54 115

Sussex (12) 15 1 9 5 21 51 103

*1996 positions in brackets